The Invictus Games brought wounded warriors, coaches and families from 14 nations together for four days of international competition Sept. 11-14 at the site of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Thousands of spectators packed the various venues as teams competed in Paralympic-style events, including swimming, track and field, seated volleyball, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby, among others. (U.S. Air Force video/Arthur Andrew Breese)
It was a little more than two years ago when Michael Phelps made history by winning his 22nd medal during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.
Only time will tell how long that record will last, but in mid-September, history was once again made at the same site as the London Olympics when the inaugural Invictus Games were held, bringing more than 400 wounded warrior athletes from 14 nations to participate in Paralympic-style events, including swimming, track and field, seated volleyball, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby, among others.
“This makes you feel like a superstar. We’re at the London Olympic arena. Michael Phelps swam in this pool and won his gold medals,” said retired Capt. Sarah Evans, who competed in swimming, athletics and powerlifting. “It was an incredible week. I’m going to be reflecting on it for a long time. The people I met, the events, the different competitions, everything I witnessed. It was huge.”
The Invictus Games were created after Prince Harry of Wales attended last year’s Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, and saw the positive impact it made on the athletes, their families and the public.
“As I have followed the competition over the past four days, I have been deeply moved by your courage, determination and talent. All of you have used the power of sports to enhance your own recovery and to raise wider awareness of the enormous challenges faced by wounded veterans,” Prince Harry said during the closing ceremonies. “The success of these games can be measured not by medals won, but by the renewed sense of purpose and confidence in your abilities that you have gained.”
While each competitor wanted to win medals for their country, the Invictus Games represented something much more important.
“Who doesn’t want to compete or play sports or do something physical? Maybe in the beginning they thought it wasn’t possible or they were told they couldn’t do something again. These men and women are not the kinds to take that stuff lightly. They’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll show you.’ The [Invictus Games] celebrates ‘I’ll show you,’” said Ken Fisher, the chairman and CEO of the Fisher House Foundation, which sponsored the Invictus Games.
The games also marked the first time wounded warriors from the U.S. armed forces were able to compete alongside each other in international competition, rather than the inter-service competition featured during the annual the Warrior Games.
“I got to represent my country. I wasn’t just representing the Air Force,” Evans said. “In past competitions, it’s always been Air Force against Army. Navy against Marine Corps, but we really came together, and I think the team melded as a unit from the beginning. The branches went away, and it was just us, as America, representing our country.”
Although many of the competitors tried to focus on personal goals during the games, each understood the magnitude of the event and what it could mean for the possibility of future Invictus Games hosted by other nations.
“It’s the first year they’ve ever had it, and I just hope it takes off worldwide and goes to many different countries,” said retired Senior Airman Scott Palomino, who competed in athletics, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball. “To be apart of the first one, maybe 10 or 15 years down the road, maybe we’ll be able to show our kids and those around us that we were there for the first one.”
Evans hoped the Invictus Games would spark the competitive spirit in wounded warriors from other nations there to compete.
“I think the other countries that are brand new to an event like this, I hope they’re hungry,” she said. “I hope the passion that was lit in us a few years ago has been lit in them, and they’ll take it back to their wounded military and veterans and they use sports the way we’ve been able to.”
Many of the athletes representing the United States have participated in the Warrior Games in years past, some of which plan on competing again this year. In Colorado, however, their one-time teammates will become competitors.
“We’re going to be competing against each other in three weeks, and it’s going to go hard,” Palomino said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot, especially from some of these veterans, on a daily basis.”
Palomino likened the way the team bonded to a deployed environment, where an Airman helps a Soldier or Marine without a second thought.
“It’s amazing because when you’re out in battle, when you’re out in the field, and someone calls in for some air support or someone needs help, it doesn’t matter what branch they’re from, we’ll get it there to them,” he said. “We’re all one family and we’re fighting for each other’s lives.”
The games may have been about bringing wounded warriors together from all over the world in friendly competition, but the desire to win a medal was in the forefront of many competitors’ minds and many foreign athletes wanted to defeat the Americans more than other country’s athletes.
“It’s always good when you play other countries, and there’s always rivalries, especially against the French and Americans,” said retired British Army Air Corps Air Trooper Lee Matthews. “We want to beat the Americans every time.”
It also gave the wounded warrior athletes the chance to be around people in circumstances just like theirs.
“It’s so good being around other (service members) in the same situation,” said retired Army Sgt. Roosevelt Anderson, Jr, who competed in track and wheelchair basketball. “You really feed off each other and bounce ideas off each other. Maybe you have the same injury, and you ask, ‘How do you deal with this?’ It’s really good to see how others cope with what’s going on and shows you it’s OK, everything’s going to be fine.”
When the Invictus Games came to a close, the U.S. team finished with with 28 gold medals, 35 silver and 30 bronze, but the impact the experience had in each competitor and their family and friends who came to support them is immeasurable.